Weiss to Columbia for Ph.D. in paleoclimatology

Thomas Weiss ’16 chose Cornell College and One Course At A Time for one main reason: to learn geology through real-world, outdoor studies. The world truly became his classroom through trips ranging from day-long investigations of local quarries and fossil beds, to month-long adventures in New Zealand and the Bahamas.

Thomas Weiss ’16 chose Cornell College and One Course At A Time for one main reason: to learn geology through real-world, outdoor studies.

What he didn’t expect was to be motivated to pursue a doctorate in the subject. As a somewhat shy first-year student from Fairfield, Iowa, he was aiming to work in the oil industry immediately after Cornell.

Professor Rhawn Denniston, a respected expert in the field of paleoclimatology, inspired Weiss to expand his goals, particularly through their summer research together on ancient coral and climates. Weiss is now set to follow Denniston’s lead, entering Columbia University in the fall to begin working toward a Ph.D. in paleoclimatology.

A highlight for Weiss was presenting their research findings at a San Francisco conference attended by 40,000 professional geologists. He further developed his self-confidence and leadership skills by becoming the third winningest tennis player in Cornell history, and by bringing outside speakers to campus as president of the Geology Club.

Q: What will you do at Columbia University?
A: I will be attending the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory to pursue a Ph.D. in paleoclimatology. I plan to continue researching past El Niño activity.

Q: What Cornell experiences prepared you to study at Columbia?
A: Cornell’s geology department is unique in the way it prepares us for graduate school. Being able to read and understand high level-journal articles is an incredibly important skill for research in graduate school. Whereas most undergraduate geology programs do very little to develop their students’ abilities to read papers, Cornell’s program has us start reading papers as first-years.

We discuss the papers with our professors and they help us with reading strategies to develop our comprehension. Our department also requires that we take an upper-level elective that follows a grad school format, focusing entirely on research and writing in an advanced topic.

Q: What person on campus had the biggest impact on you?
A: Professor Rhawn Denniston, my advisor, had the biggest impact on me. Rhawn has been my mentor since I got to Cornell. As a first-year, my plan was to find a job in the oil industry once I graduated, but Rhawn was such an engaging and enthusiastic teacher in his paleoclimates classes that I fell in love with the subject. Near the end of my junior year, I realized that I wanted to follow in his footsteps and earn a Ph.D. in paleoclimatology.

Rhawn was instrumental in my getting into Columbia. He gave me the opportunity to do research under his National Science Foundation grant and then to present our findings in San Francisco. Since the beginning of my time at Cornell, he knew that there was a good chance I would want to go to graduate school, and he guided me through every step of the process, including making first contact with potential advisors and writing personal statements. I know that if I ever encounter difficulties in grad school, Rhawn will be there to help get me through them.

Q: What is your biggest academic accomplishment?
A: I spent the summer of 2015 and the 2015-16 school year doing research with Rhawn Denniston, studying five-million-year-old coral to create a record of El Niño during a period of Earth’s history when the climate was analogous to projected global warming conditions. We found evidence that El Niño events occurred at roughly the same frequency five-million-years ago as they do now. In November I traveled to San Francisco to present our findings at a conference of 40,000 geologists. This coming summer we are going to publish our results in a peer reviewed journal.

Q: How did One Course At A Time impact your education?
A: One Course At A Time is the perfect system for a geology major. Geology requires that we go into the field to actually see what we are learning about. On the semester plan, we couldn’t take field trips without missing other classes. With One Course At A Time, we can go on field trips that last several days.

During my four years at Cornell, I went on day trips to many local quarries and fossil beds, and we took longer trips to study ancient mountains in Wisconsin, ancient volcanoes in Missouri, and other sites. I also spent a block in New Zealand learning about geologic mapping and a block in the Bahamas learning about tropical geologic systems. The two months I spent abroad were two of the best months of my life. New Zealand and the Bahamas are two of the most geologically active regions in the world, and to be able to work in and learn about those environments was incredible. Rhawn Denniston and Ben Greenstein, the professors who led the trips, know so much about the areas that we could ask whatever we wanted and they had answers and explanations.

Q: What do you most value about your Cornell education?
A: The thing I valued most about Cornell was the collaborative learning environment. It’s obvious that Cornell professors truly care about our success. They go through the effort to learn all of our names, as well as our strengths and weaknesses. They also learn about our personal lives and congratulate us on any achievements they hear about.

Not only are Cornell professors invested in students’ learning, but the students are invested in each other’s learning. The intensity of the One Course At A Time system means that we get to know all of our classmates, and it provides plenty of opportunities for us to work together and contribute to each other’s learning. We work together on labs, classroom assignments, and homework, making sure everyone understands the material.

Q: What’s the most important thing you learned at Cornell?
A: I learned that it’s cool to be “weird” and it’s not cool to ostracize or make fun of someone who is weird. Weirdness makes us unique and makes life interesting—at Cornell, we embrace that. Being weird is being genuine and there’s nothing cooler than that.

Q: What activities were you involved in at Cornell?
A: I am a member of our tennis team. I made some of my best friends through tennis. I also learned to better manage my time, and I got to stay in shape. One of the best parts of tennis was that it gave me a scheduled break from the stresses of class to do something I love.

As a member of the geology club, I was able to experience parts of my major that aren’t available through our small department. For example, as the president, I was able to bring in guest speakers from other Iowa schools who talked about their research in sub-disciplines of geology.

Q: How did Cornell change you?
A: I became a lot more confident in myself and my identity at Cornell. I came to the school a little shy, but Cornell offers so many opportunities to get involved and take on leadership positions. The faculty also gives us the responsibility to be adults. Cornell challenges us to think about and have conviction in our beliefs.

Q: Favorite study spot?
A: I love studying in my suite on the couch in our living room. I usually have the biggest sports game on the TV on mute.

Q: Which part of campus has special meaning for you?
A: I spent hours upon hours looking at rocks and fossils in the Norton Geology Center, working with friends who will last a lifetime. Norton will always be my favorite place on campus.